A (very) brief overview of animal ethics and an argument for ethical veganism

The field of animal ethics considers our interaction, in the broadest sense of the term, with non-human animals. It interrogates the moral consideration we extend to them, examines our relations with them, and provides guidance on the moral permissibility of our interactions with them. An increasing number of moral philosophers, from a range of theoretical perspectives, argue that many non-human animals deserve moral consideration.  What follows is not intended to be exhaustive, but instead serves as a very brief overview of influential ways to consider the above matters. Following this, I propose a practical response to reflect adequate moral consideration, namely, veganism.

In Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals (1975), Peter Singer highlights shared qualities of humans and non-human animals, and argues that all sentient beings are entitled to have their interests considered in moral deliberation. Singer argues that our current treatment of non-human animals is not morally justifiable and our behaviour must therefore be changed (Singer, 1975)

Tom Regan argues, in The Case for Animal Rights (1984),  that sentience, understood as the capacity for subjective experience, is all that is required for something to be inherently valuable. What is morally relevant, according to Regan, is the inherent value of ‘subjects-of-a-life’ – those beings that have beliefs, desires, perception, memory, and so on. Put simply, many non-human animals are subjects-of-a-life, and as such, they ought to be given moral consideration.

Gary Francione rejects the idea that animals have less value than humans (Francione, 2020) and views the ‘welfarist’ (such as Singer and Regan), as simply operating within the bounds of a system that needs a complete overhaul. Francione holds a comparably strong egalitarian position, claiming that all beings that are sentient ought to have equal moral standing. Francione calls for nothing short of complete abolition, not merely regulation, of institutionalised animal exploitation. The abolitionist position is particularly direct in its practical consequences, ultimately supporting an argument that veganismis required as a moral baseline.

More recently, attention has been given to the variety of relationships that we have with non-human animals. For example, in Entangled Empathy. An Alternative Ethic for our Relationship with Animals (2015),  Lori Gruen moves away from the individualist and universalist approaches employed by earlier theorists and considers empathy in an attempt to understand these relationships and our entanglement with other animals.

A number of theorists that fall under the banner of the ‘political turn’ in animal ethics also draw attention to our relationships with non-human animals. For example, in their  book Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights (2013),Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka build on citizenship theory to assess the variety of ways that humans and non-human animals interact, and as such, how the moral consideration we extend to different groups also varies. While we have moral obligations to all non-human animals, as our relationships differ, so too do these obligations. An advantage of this approach is that it highlights not only the variety of relations we have with non-human animals, but also draws attention to the vast array of beings that we are referring to when we speak of non-human animals.

An entity that is morally considerable is one that can be wronged, and thus deserves to be considered in the moral deliberation. The term ‘moral agent’ is commonly used to refer to morally considerable entities. However, it has been argued that this distinction is inadequate to account for both the variety of non-human animals and the differences in the capacities that they possess. Regan’s distinction of ‘moral agents’ and ‘moral patients’helps to address this problem. Moral patients lack capacities for full moral agency, however this does not mean that they do not have moral value. Many non-human animals might not be moral agents, instead only moral patients, but importantly, being a moral patient is sufficient for moral consideration.

While humans are obviously different to other animals, these differences are not sufficient to deny animals at least some level of moral consideration. In an attempt to exclude animals from greater moral consideration, on par with humans, one might appeal to sophisticated cognitive capacities. However, none of these capacities are unique to humans and are commonly observed, at least to some extent, in other animals. The so-called ‘argument from marginal cases’ also challenges this exclusionary criterion, as there are many individual humans who do not possess sophisticated cognitive capacities that we still want to extend moral consideration to – for example; young children.

Species membership, that is, being a member of the species Homo Sapiens, is also commonly invoked to defend the view that humans alone deserve moral consideration, however this position faces the charge of ‘speciesism’. Speciesism refers to the charge that one’s own species’ interests are arbitrarily prioritized over another. There is no justifiable reason for holding this position, therefore it merely amounts to a form of discrimination and lacks any sort of moral grounding.

Following from granting certain non-human animals moral consideration, one ought to abstain from the consumption of animals and the use of animal-derived products – a position commonly known as ‘veganism’. That is to say, if one is to adequately extend moral consideration to other animals, it will be reflected by a change in dietary practices (among other things).

It might be objected, at this point, that in highly industrialized consumer cultures it is virtually impossible to avoid the killing of some morally considerable sentient beings. For example, many field animals are harmed in the farming of crops, fruits, and vegetables, for human consumption – including for those who embrace a vegan diet.  However, it is misguided to suggest that this is a reason to reject veganism. It would be analogous to suggesting that we should not combat crime at all, because all criminals cannot be stopped.

Jones and Gruen instead propose a conception of veganism, which they refer to as ‘Aspirational Veganism’, that recognises the complexity of consumer culture and our interaction with animals in this system. On this view, veganism is not a lifestyle or identity, but is, according to Gruen and Jones, “a type of practice, a process of doing the best one can to minimize violence, domination, and exploitation” (Gruen & Jones, 2015). In other words, veganism can be seen an individual goal for one to strive toward, to the best of their ability, to reduce suffering.

As I have mentioned above, veganism can be viewed as a practical reflection of adequate moral consideration. Adapted from Jones (1) (2016), my short argument for ethical veganism (2) is as follows:

  1. It is morally wrong to cause suffering and/or premature death without good reason.
  2. The consumption of animals and animal-derived products causes suffering and/or premature death.
  3. With minimal hardship, the vast majority of those living comfortably (i.e. above the poverty line) in highly industrialized consumer cultures can flourish without directly consuming animals, while also striving to avoid animal-derived products.
  4. The vast majority of those described in Point 3 consume animals and animal-derived products as a result of social norms, convenience, or taste preference.
  5. Social norms, convenience, or taste preference are not good reasons to cause suffering and/or premature death to non-human animals.
  6. Therefore, it is morally wrong to consume animals and animal derived products.
  7. We ought to avoid moral wrongs.
  8. Therefore, we should stop consuming animals and animal-derived products, to the best of our ability.

The argument I have provided above ought to be convincing. However, less than 10% of Australians (3) are vegetarian (4), let alone vegan. The fact that roughly 90% of the population views some animals as food suggests that the moral consideration extended to non-human animals is inadequate. Why is this, and what can be done to bring about change?

*This blog post has been adapted from my Masters of Research thesis, ‘How Misinformation Reinforces the Status of Animals as Food’ (2021). Thank you to my supervisors Jane Johnson and Mark Alfano.


(1) The basic structure of my argument here has been borrowed from Jones’ argument for ethical veganism, as expressed in the paper ‘Veganisms’ (2016). It has been adapted to incorporate other important aspects, such as ‘aspirational veganism’ and social norms. It should also be noted that Jones’ argument has been influenced by Mylan Engel’s “Why YOU Are Committed to the Immorality of Eating Meat” (2002), and James Rachels, “The Basic Argument for Vegetarianism” (2004).

(2) Note that this is an ethical argument for veganism. Other (non-ethical) arguments can also be made for veganism, for example, by appealing to individual health concerns. One might also make ethical arguments for veganism that appeal to environmental considerations, rather than concern for non-human animals.

(3) The percentage of vegetarians is similar in the United States, United Kingdom, and other highly industrialized consumer cultures (See The Vegetarian Resource Group, 2015).

(4) Vegetarian (and vegetarianism)refers to the consumption of animal flesh alone. The figures for Veganism are significantly lower (It is estimated that only 400,000-500,000 Australians adhere to a vegan diet. See VeganAustralia.org.au).


Francione, G. (2020). Why Veganism Matters. The Moral Value of Animals. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Gruen, L. (2015). Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for Our Relationships with Animals. Brooklyn, NY: Lantern Books.

Gruen, L., & Jones, R. (2015). “Veganism as an Aspiration”. In B. Bramble & B. Fischer (eds.), The Moral Complexities of Eating Meat. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Jones, R. C. (2016). “Veganisms”. In  J. Castiano & R. R. Simonsen (eds.), Critical Perspectives on Veganism. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Regan, T. (1984). The Case for Animal Rights. London, UK: Routledge.

Roy Morgan. (2019, April 12th). Rise in vegetarianism not halting the march of obesity. [Press release]. Retrieved April 3rd 2021, from http://www.roymorgan.com/findings/7944-vegetarianism-in-2018-april-2018-201904120608

Singer, P. (1975). Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

The Vegetarian Resource Group. (2015, November). How Many Adult Vegetarians in The U.S.?. [Press Release]. Retrieved April 3rd 2021, from https://www.vrg.org/press/201511press.htm